LOS ANGELES -- The scene Saturday at STAPLES Center was a sight to behold.
About 30 children ages 4 to 8, members of the Los Angeles Kings' Learn to Play Program, were on the ice, split amongst five stations. They were being instructed by former Kings players; forward Derek Armstrong, defenseman Mathieu Schneider, now special assistant to the executive director at the NHL Players' Association and forward Daryl Evans, now a Kings broadcaster.
The kids were taught a different hockey skill -- skating, shooting, passing -- at each station. Sometimes the players executed the drill, sometimes they fell, sliding along the fresh sheet of ice. No matter the success or failure the kids smiled. So did their instructors.
It will soon be a scene that will take place in each of the League's 31 markets. On Saturday, the NHL announced the adaptation of the Learn to Play Program on a League-wide basis.
The Learn to Play initiative was developed jointly by the League and the NHL Players' Association to offer more families a chance to experience youth hockey. It provides first-time participants between the ages of 4 and 8 free head-to-toe equipment, age-appropriate instruction and certified coaching, led by NHL alumni.
"The Learn to Play program from our perspective is all about reducing cost barriers and casting a wider net for first-time hockey participants, introducing the sport to people who may not have had an opportunity absent this program," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said.
The program, based on successful repetition, is in eight NHL markets.
"In my estimation, this is one of the best programs the NHL and the NHLPA offer," said David Morehouse, president and CEO of the Penguins. "About 10 years ago, Sidney Crosby came to us and asked how can we make it more affordable for kids to play hockey, I'd like to try to help. So what we did was we went to a couple of our corporate sponsors, at the time, Dick's Sporting Goods and Reebok, now CCM, and together with Sidney we funded a program to provide free hockey equipment for kids in western Pennsylvania. We're in our 10th year, and every year it's over 1,000 kids.
"Those kids are learning basic values besides learning how to play hockey. The unique thing about this program is the NHL, the NHLPA, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, the four of us all getting together. We can truly change and grow the game."
The League and the NHLPA, using its Industry Growth Fund, believes it can introduce new players to the game, but also introduce those players to a positive initial experience.
"I think there's probably a lot of people in this room that would agree that there's a negative culture in youth sports today, and from the first time a kid puts on a pair of skates, gets on a baseball field, picks up a basketball, everything is about winning and losing," Schneider said. "And what this program aims to do, and what we hope to do expanding in the future, is to change that culture, make it a fun, positive environment, give the kids a place where they can get great coaching, develop some of the life skills that sports teach you.
"It's not about becoming a great hockey player, it's about becoming a great person, and hockey is a vehicle to help you achieve your goals."
As the Learn to Play Program grows it will introduce more players to the game -- the goal is 30,000 annually, according to Daly -- and, by extension, more fans to the sport.
"There is no platform we have as far as visibility that's better than doing things with the League and its teams," said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey. "They generate the exposure that we can't necessarily do on our own. So to have them to be doing what they are going to be doing in 24 U.S. markets, in those areas and around those areas, it is just going to give a real turbo boost to our efforts and you are going to see that growth start to ladder over the course of the next few years."